By Christopher Zhen
Working on Capitol Hill this summer, I have had an abundance of opportunities to listen to constituents from both sides of the aisle feed me diatribes of monumental proportions. Republicans want 24 million people to die because of their indifference. President Trump wants people to starve to death in the streets. Former President Obama hates America and is secretly a Muslim. After hanging up the phone, I often wonder how people end up reaching these conclusions, and the goals they are hoping to achieve by making such magnanimous statements. This extreme pessimism has led me to question the use and employment of hyperbole, and how it affects our political system on the whole.
Hyperbolic speech is a phenomenon that has long lasted in our political discourse, but it is also largely hurting the way we think about policy and others around us. It undermines any sense of bipartisanship that exists in this country by sharply dividing people around a reactionary statement. I believe that those on the left especially are feeling the brunt of the backlash of hyperbolic statements that they have made about Republican politicians, especially in the past two decades. As my colleague Cameron Erickson points out in his article, in the Obama era alone Democrats have lost over a thousand seats in state legislatures across the nation, and they also lost the 2016 presidential election. I largely believe that this destruction of the Democratic Party’s momentum was caused by the hyperbolic talking points, specifically from popular political pundits and media figures.
When we specifically look at the 2016 election, Donald Trump was lambasted by prominent media personalities as a cruel, misogynistic, and conniving public figure; in many senses, I do agree with these assessments of his character. However, I, as well as many other Americans, have become rather jaded by this dialogue when considering the coverage of Republican candidates and their policies, more generally, of the past ten years. The media, much of which is left-leaning, wrote viciously not only about Donald Trump, but also about more temperamental Republican candidates such as Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, etc.
It wasn’t all that long ago that pundits were criticizing President Bush (43) as a know-nothing candidate, ignorant about major policy issues. Recent Republican presidential nominees have all been blasted as being too far to the right. Legitimate candidates with well-intentioned ideology and policies have been painted as punishing lackeys of the wealthy, doing everything they can to spite the average person, and this rhetoric has not changed.
The point that should be made here is that Republican voters, especially in the past few decades, have long been used to their candidates of choice being insulted, and labeled cold-hearted, evil, and hostile. When you continuously employ these dramatic statements, in hopes of shocking voters into agreeing with you, instead of tactfully and reasonably disagreeing with the policies of your opponent, the sting of the sound bites begins to lose potency. Not only do you lose people’s trust in your reporting and analysis, but you also lose their ears as well. In the most recent occurrence, voters, especially those in Middle America disgusted and disaffected by Hillary Clinton’s labeling of them as “deplorables”, rejected the apocalyptic statements made by the political pundits and installed Donald Trump as our 45th President of the United States.
But the problem with hyperbolic claims in our political discourse is not limited to the political left; a lot of right-leaning editorial websites fall victim to reactionary headlines and unsubstantiated, apocalyptic claims just the same. There were those on the right who unfairly made claims about our former President, with statements that were meant to shock and scare voters. A notable example of this was Fox News firebrand Sean Hannity calling out former President Obama for going to Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s church and attending a Muslim school, as well as “sympathizing with Sharia law”. Neither party or base, it would appear, is unsullied by this lowly alternative to rational discourse.
So what can we do to fix the problem? It all comes down to reviving healthy, sound political dialogue by listening to all people, not just those in our respective echo chambers. We must take steps towards a more policy-based dialogue, and prevent its breakdown into shallow attacks and soundbites. I still remember a powerful moment during the 2008 presidential campaign, when John McCain definitively rejected the claim that former President Obama was an “Arab”, stating that “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues”. The restoration of healthy American politics is a transformation that is hard to visualize at this moment in time, but it’s a worthy fight that needs to be undertaken if we want to repair the broken bonds of bipartisanship that once existed decades ago.